Every September and October since 1968, Graz – the capital of the region of Styria, picturesquely located at the foot of the Alps – has held a modern arts festival: the Steirischer Herbst, or Styrian Autumn. Witold Lutosławski visited the Styrian Autumn a couple of times; more specifically, the Musikprotokoll, as the musical part of the festival is called, organised by the Austrian Radio Orchestra (ORF). He first travelled to Graz in 1971, to conduct his Musique funèbre in a concert given by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra on 24 October. That recording was later included on an LP released by the ORF: Musikprotokoll 1971.
The programme of the next edition of the festival featured two of his works. A highlight of the concert on 12 October 1972 was the first performance of Preludes and Fugue. That work was commissioned by the conductor Mario di Bonaventura, but since the festival in the American town of Hanover for which the work was written was cancelled due to a lack of funds, the first performance of the prepared score was offered to the Styrian Autumn. The longest of Lutosławski’s works, at thirty-five minutes, Preludes and Fugue was played in Weiz, some 30 km from Graz. Five days later, in Graz itself, the Cello Concerto was performed. Two years earlier, it had been brought to the concert platform by Mstislav Rostropovich, who was due to be the soloist in Graz, but the soviet authorities refused him permission to travel. So a replacement had to be found. It was entrusted to the then young Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff. The Slovenian Radio Orchestra was conducted by its leaderSamo Hubad, and for the time being Lutosławski only listened to the artists, as he began conducting that work somewhat later – with Schiff as soloist.
In later years, the organisers of the Styrian Autumn were inclined to include his new works on the festival programmes. In 1980, the first performance of a song cycle was considered, to be sung by Jessye Norman, and although nothing came of that idea it is believed to have inspired the later cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables.
It was in Graz that Lutosławski was almost persuaded to write an opera. When planning the grand reopening of the renovated opera house in 1985, the authorities wanted to commission a new work for the occasion. The composer was inclined to accept the commission, and Andrzej Wajda urged him to base the libretto on the latest play by the French writer Jean-Claude Carrière, La conférence des oiseaux. Carrière had written the screenplay to Wajda’s film Danton, and so the director arranged for the two men to meet. ‘Witold had always considered that opera was pointless and laughable by nature, since people don’t sing, but talk. But birds sing, and so if a person was a bird on the stage he could sing. He was full of enthusiasm, and he even talked for many hours in Warsaw with the author of the Parisian libretto’, recalled Krystyna Zachwatowicz and Andrzej Wajda. Unfortunately, it soon turned out that a libretto based on that very play had already been prepared for another composer, and thus it got no further than the conversations, and Lutosławski treated the collapse of the project as decreed by providence.